Changes in Style/Language

Subject: Changes in Style/Language
From: Buck & Tilly Buchanan <writer -at- WF -dot- NET>
Date: Thu, 30 Oct 1997 05:27:41 -0600

Moshe Koenig has given me permission to cross-post this short essay on
style and language. I believe it's a classic and hope it's not so far
off-topic that I get pinged.

I've followed Ira Jacobson's thread with no small amount of interest.
First of all, for over two decades in Israel, I've had my knowledge of
the English language put to the test quite often by persons who had
engaged me to be the specialist in the language. While logic would
dictate that if I'm the resident expert, I should be regarded as an
authoritative source, that's just one more great idea of Western man
that doesn't work in Israel.

Language is dynamic and is constantly changing. Common usage
challenges old conventions and implements new ones. Styles have
the same challenges; repeated usage, even if incorrect, can
ultimately become a standard.

In the Sixties, teachers of grammar and syntax still taught that it was
highly improper to use contractions of any sort in formal writing, and
many also would grade down a student who used contractions in
personal writing as well. Even in the early Nineties, I saw a grammar
published in London that stated quite clearly that the phrase "due to"
should be used only when referring to financial matters; the correct
phrase for most situations was "owing to".

Most of us have heard the various jokes about hypercorrect usage
in English, most notably Churchill's remark about "errant pedantry
up with which I will not put." Styles also have their idiosyncracies;
note that Microsoft's letter template in Word includes a complimentary
closing that consists of one lone adverb, something that teachers of
style openly reject as unacceptable. It is also possible to find
arguments over what are the proper uses of the comma. I still recall
with no small amount of loathing my ninth grade English teacher's
special cure for insomnia that came in the form of a week-long
lecture series on the uses of the comma, of which I only remember
the ennui.

Correctness and accuracy are part of our business, but our business
is not static. Anyone schooled in the Fifties who reads A Manual of
Style from the University of Chicago will discover that conventions
have changed sharply; anyone schooled in the Sixties or Seventies
will probably remember the interim period when common usage
challenged the old styles that the new ones replaced. Common
usage sometimes even changes the meaning of words; the words
"pretty", "gossip", and "gay" are three words whose current meanings
are far removed from their original meanings, simply because of the
way people chose to use them.

Change threatens everyone; it's natural to resist it. However, language
and style are forever changing. It's what keeps our work interesting; we
are the ones to witness the changes first.

The above was posted by Moshe Koenig to tech-shoret (Israeli Tech
Writers' list).


Buck Buchanan
writer -at- wf -dot- net
Sunset, TX

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